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Harry Shearer
© Charlie Ward

Harry Shearer interview: '"The Simpsons" was my money gig'

The American actor of 'This is Spinal Tap' and 'The Simpsons' fame tells us about taking on a more serious role... as a ballroom dancer

American comedian and actor Harry Shearer is best known for his contributions to ‘The Simpsons’ – he’s voiced more than 30 characters since it started in 1989, including Ned Flanders, Waylon Smithers and Mr Burns. He’s also a longtime collaborator with cult filmmaker Christopher Guest, their most famous work being the mockumentary ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ in which he starred as bassist Derek Smalls in a spoof British ’80s heavy metal group. A London resident for part of the year, he’s now making his British theatre debut, starring opposite Maureen Lipman as one half of a ballroom dancing couple in Oliver Cotton’s ‘Daytona’ at north London’s swish new Park Theatre.

Have you had to learn ballroom dancing for ‘Daytona’?

‘Yes. I warned them I’m not a dancer, but in fairness I did once learn the moonwalk for an HBO special so I can be taught. I’m like a clever chimp.’

Is ‘Daytona’ anything like ‘Strictly’?
‘I don’t watch those kind of competitive TV shows, but I don’t think so. I play Joe, who is rehearsing with his wife Elli, played by Maureen Lipman, for a ballroom dancing competition. My character’s younger brother [played by John Bowe], who we haven’t seen for 30 years turns up. He’s got what he thinks is a satisfying surprise for us.’

You’ve been in plays in America, but they’ve been comedies. Is this funny?

‘There are laughs in “Daytona”, but it’s not a comedy. I never thought: I must one day do “Hamlet” so the plays I’ve worked on have been fairly light. This seemed like such a great opportunity, but I know I’ll be nervous as a wet cat to begin with.’ Do you think British audiences will be different?
‘I’m sure they will be. Technically, though, I have been on the UK stage before, if you count performing with “Spinal Tap”. Why not count that? We’re acting!’

After a slow start ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ became very successful. Did it surprise you?
‘It must have been the first non-porn movie to become big in home video. We always thought it would reach an audience but we had no idea it would be a trans-generational audience.’

We heard you were initially reluctant to be in ‘The Simpsons’...
‘I didn’t jump at it right away. I knew the king of animation voices – Mel Blanc who did “Looney Tunes” – and from what I had learned about animation, I thought it might be an industrial process. But “The Simpsons” wasn’t: we’d do the shows pretty much straight through and we worked together as a cast.’

Has the money you earned from ‘The Simpsons’ meant you can work on smaller projects like this?
‘Yes, “The Simpsons” was my money gig and everything else I can now do because I want to.’

Which is your favourite character to work on?
‘That’s easy: Mr Burns. Most nasty people, at least in fiction, have to put some effort into appearing less than totally evil. But he just doesn’t bother with that.’
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